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A heroes' welcome

Famous figures have earned their place in the classroom, says Vikki Askew

Teachers from around 20 European countries, from Eire to Croatia, Cyprus to Denmark, got together earlier this year and explored the whole idea of heroes in history. The setting was a workshop I ran at the Euroclio conference in Cardiff (see box). The focus was on a critical evaluation both of popular perceptions of heroes and of our own educational practice, and together we discussed whether the concept of heroes has a place in history teaching.

Much modern thinking and practice has moved away from the "great man" approach, which has often been linked with a narrowly narrative and nationalist outlook. But we wanted to discuss whether there is still a place for famous men and women in a more enquiry-based approach, and especially one with that focus on multiple perspectives that is so important in countries recently divided by conflicts, or where national identity is struggling to establish itself after years of repression. Our aim was to share current practice and discuss how to move forward, in countries where heroes are still seen as essential to preserving national identity as well as those where there is a more sceptical approach.

The initial discussion centred on the need to define heroes; there was much disagreement on criteria, with some insisting on moral values and others emphasising success; some saw a hero as one who stood out against the trends, others as one who most successfully personified a "spirit of the age".

It was agreed that, while it was difficult to approach the term dispassionately, it could not be ignored by teachers, as all our pupils would have heroes of some sort and it was important to give them a wider context in which to explore the basis for their own values - had they accepted figures imposed on them by the media, or had they a clear idea of the criteria on which they based their choices? Enthusiasm for their own heroes, whether historical or current, could be channelled to encourage an interest in and understanding of history.

Discussing possible definitions was seen as a worthwhile historical activity in itself for pupils of all ages - one which could generate lively classroom debate. Pupils might have different criteria from those raised by teachers, and it was worth exploring the reasons for this.

Teachers were asked to agree on 10 heroes in world history - this led to much debate, and limited agreement, with only Gandhi and Jesus featuring on everyone's lists, and some arguing that there was a need to include antiheroes, such as Hitler and Pol Pot, whose negative contribution was on a "heroic" scale.

Pupils might be asked for their views on national figures - such activities could be a useful starting point for study either of an overview of national history, or of individuals in depth in a particular period, as in recent work on teaching the overview through a depth study, such as King John, by Dale Banham and Ian Dawson (John Murray). In either case, pupils could explore the changing interpretations of the individual's role or of the significant moments in national history, seeing how these interpretations are constructed and constantly re-examined.

Many teachers are already exploring these possibilities in challenging ways with their pupils, often in countries where the need to see other perspectives on the past is of particular contemporary significance. So, for example, pupils in Croatia are studying the life and impact of Muhammad, Greek Cypriot pupils study Turkish heroes, and pupils in Budapest examine the Romanian perspective on Janos Hunyadi, whose reputation as a heroic leader of resistance against the Turks is claimed by both Romania and Hungary. Romanian teachers, after attending a similar workshop as part of their own Euroclio in-service training programme, have developed teaching units on a wide variety of heroes from national and world history; so Oliver Cromwell's reputation has been examined, as well as that of King Carol II of Romania (1930-40), and, interestingly, the experience of the ordinary citizen, through a study of the Unknown Soldier as hero of the First World War.

We also examined popular representations of the hero, and discussed how these could be used in the classroom; we looked at the 1961 Hollywood film El Cid, starring Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren, and an introduction to a 1915 children's popular storybook, Espana y su Historia, which introduced its collection of stories of the heroes of Spain's past as "the school of patriotism, which must set alight your hearts to love Spain, as much in prosperity as in disgrace, and to defend it at all times" (my translation).

Many other examples could be used, including visual images - the statues of Saladin constructed in Iraq under Saddam, or the new statues of Peter the Great replacing Stalin in post-communist Russia. Pupils need to explore the development of the image of the hero in its contemporary context, without losing sight of the real historical figure whose career should still be examined through the usual means of historical enquiry.

We compared this approach with the popular BBC series Great Britons (2002).

The 10 figures selected were, in chronological order, Elizabeth I, Shakespeare, Oliver Cromwell, Isaac Newton, Nelson, Brunel, Darwin, Churchill, John Lennon and Princess Diana. The public debate over those selected or omitted showed something of the depth of feeling on this issue of how to judge who had made a significant contribution to the nation's history. All of this is put to good use in the history classroom, where issues of significance are linked to teaching about changing interpretations of the past. The study of individuals can encourage real debates about the role of the individual in a changing context.

We concluded with a useful exchange of ideas and practice in our countries - touching on issues such as whether the interpretative approach is more possible for "world" heroes than for national figures in certain contexts - so Oliver Cromwell is more acceptable in this context in Romania than in Northern Ireland - and how far such an approach is appropriate for younger pupils.

A great deal of thoughtful and sensitive work is being done in this area in a number of European countries, and teachers are generally aware of the dangers of an uncritical nationalist approach to great figures from their countries' pasts. What is less clear - for them, even more than for us in Britain - is the extent to which teachers have the time to develop a more reflective approach to these figures, which could be so fruitful for the wider historical understanding of pupils in all European countries, at a time when an understanding of multiple perspectives is not an academic luxury but an urgent necessity.

Vikki Askew is head of history at Leeds Grammar School

* Espana y su Historia is now available from the City History Museum of Barcelona

* The second series of The Mark Steel Lectures by the comedian and columnist, (currently being broadcast on BBC4 on Fridays at 11pm; repeated Wednesdays at 11pm) includes Leonardo da Vinci, Sylvia Pankhurst, Einstein and Thomas Paine


Euroclio, the European Standing Conference of History Teachers'

Organisations, was set up in 1993.

Membership includes almost all European nations, including the UK's Historical Association.

Its annual international conferences are open to members of all its organisations, and grants are available for attendance.

The 2005 conference will be in Riga, Latvia, on how to balance local, national, regional, European and world dimensions in history teaching.

In 2006, the conference will be in Malta, and will focus on historical skills and European citizenship, and the 2007 conference, to be held in Slovenia, will be on historical interpretations and European citizenship.

Euroclio has been involved in projects developing teacher training and resources in former Communist countries, including the Romanian training project in history and citizenship, and cross-border projects,for example in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia and Serbia, and Montenegro, as well as projects in Russia, Albania, the Baltic states and Ukraine.

A newsletter is available to members and publications are available to all.

Recent titles include After the Wall. History Teaching in Europe 1989-2003, edited by Martin Roberts, pound;12 and History Changes. Facts and figures about history education in Europe since 1989 by Joke van der Leeuw-Roord, pound;20.


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